Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Harassing the Professor

cross-posted at Dagblog

The University of Venus blog at Inside Higher Ed recently posted a personal reflection by a non-white female professor who has felt sexually harassed by one of her male undergraduates. This is at once shocking and entirely unsurprising. Even a white straight guy like me can't work in higher education and not notice the inappropriate behaviors that many female colleagues have to put up with from male students: students sexually propositioning them, giving them flowers, attempting to contact them off-campus, writing graphic sexual comments in teaching evaluations. It may not have happened to every single woman who professes, but it happens to plenty, and to far, far more than it should. In this case, the student turned a writing assignment into something graphically sexual that had nothing to do with course content. (And yes, of course sex is not off limits for academic discussion. But it has to be academic discussion. "That Georgia O'Keefe painting looks pretty symbolic to me," is a normal part of art history class. "Let me tell you more about my penis," is not.)

The original post had led to a intense online discussions both at the University of Venus and at Historiann. Some insights have been great, and others derailed by the question of parity: does this happen to male faculty too? Shouldn't we treat men and women faculty equally? I find this line of argument unsettling for three reasons: 1) this is very obviously not a case of parity, 2) that the situations are radically unequal does not mean that men are never, ever, ever harassed, or that we need not consider how such a situation should be treated, and 3) the focus on student harassment as an exchange between only two people leaves out all the other people in the classroom, and those people's education is very definitely affected by such misbehavior.

Here's a key quote from the original poster:

Right after my confrontation with this student about his first paper, I shot my usual line to my husband, who is also an academic: “this would never happen to you!” And then I realized there were other things that were happening that I doubt happen to him or other male faculty. Based on the content of the student’s paper, and his behavior towards me, it was very clear that he saw me not as a professor but as a sexualized, “exotic” woman. I became acutely aware of my body language and my clothes. I found myself often quickly checking the buttons on my shirt during class to make sure they were all buttoned. I felt awkward turning around to write something at length on the board. I found myself limiting my physicality in other ways, like not sitting on top of the desk as I often do during discussion sessions. I started scheduling students back to back during office hours, if he wanted to meet with me, just so there would be a crowd of students outside my door when he was inside my office. And I made sure that I wasn’t the last person to leave the classroom. I understand that male professors are sometimes viewed sexually by their students. But I think the consequences of that are very different. I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom, if they wonder what kind of predicament the next bad grade they give out is going to land them in.

The focus, again, has been on "This would never happen to you!" Of course it does happen to men, occasionally. But the real point isn't whether anything like this happens to male teachers or not. The point is that this situation is much easier for men to defend themselves against than it is for women.

If you're a straight male teacher, a straight female student is much less likely to cross the boundaries that you set in your teacher-student interactions, and in the rare cases when one does, a male teacher is going to protect himself, and count on his institution to protect him, pretty easily.

The male teacher's advantage begins with our culture's standard heteronormative scripts for courtship and dating. Should a female student express interest in a male professor, that expression will in almost every case involve the student signaling availability, rather than making any overt gesture. The script is that the woman signals interest and the man pursues. That's by no means a feminist script but face it: a female undergraduate interested in having an actual romantic relationship (as opposed to a crush or occasional daydream) involving a major power differential with an older man is typically also invested in old-fashioned gender roles and in the man as pursuer.

Basically, all a male college professor has to do to repel such invitations is ignore them. A student has a fantasy, no matter how durable or ephemeral, of being pursued by an older man; if the older man doesn't pursue, that's pretty much the ballgame. If a male professor doesn't know how to ignore or deflect comments professionally, he can just fall back on playing dumb. Actually being dumb also works quite nicely. Does the student just have a garden-variety crush, or is she actually hoping to act out her fantasies? Doesn't matter; there's not much she can do without the male faculty member's cooperation. Male privilege is not only powerful, but it's convenient.

A woman professor, unfortunately, doesn't have to distinguish the male students with harmless crushes from the ones who are prone to act out, either, because the young men who want to act out do. If the script is "man pursues," a young man with a sexual interest in his professor is apt to make unequivocal gestures. A dozen roses; an e-mail describing erotic dreams; a surprise phone call at home. Bad times. And then the onus is put on the faculty member to actively refuse the student, and of course to manage his hurt feelings. (She not only gets to be inappropriately sexualized; she gets to be inappropriately sexualized and then become a focus of anger.) And while a female student hitting on a male professor often experiences his authority as "sexy," many male students who proposition female professors experience a woman's authority as an anomaly that needs to be reversed or resolved. There are plenty of horror stories, although none are mine to tell. This situation is much, much harder than it is for the male teacher, right from the start. And when a male student refuses to hear the refusal, and responds with larger and less appropriate gestures in order to make sure that he has communicated his desires to their object, it gets ugly.

Are there occasionally students who refuse to accept that a male professor has refused them? Sure. It's much rarer than it is for female professors, but it happens. Harassers, of whatever gender, can be defined by their inability to hear the word no or to recognize boundaries, and when one inappropriate gesture doesn't get what they want they follow with an even less appropriate one. When inappropriate e-mail doesn't work, make an inappropriate phone call. If that doesn't work, just show up. To take one of the original poster's implicit questions, "I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom," literally, the answer is "Once in a great while, yes." It's happened to me only once in nineteen combined years as a high school teacher, grad school teaching fellow, and professor, and it lasted rather less than a semester, and it was a hell of a lot easier on me than it is on almost any woman in the same position. That experience in no way makes me less privileged, or "equally a victim." In fact, my experience illustrates how much easier men have it.

On semester, I got some alarming e-mail sent to my personal account; it was anonymous, but various details indicated a student in a night course I was teaching. (Even though the student didn't respect my boundaries or my privacy, I was still supposed to come looking for her; she had apparently created an e-mail profile just for the purpose of sending me her amorous spam, and her profile picture was a jpeg of Lady Godiva. Even the unsettling inappropriate behavior was a variant on come-and-get-me.) I reported it to my department chair immediately, gave the students no indication that anything had happened, and spent a few weeks working out which of my students had done it. Did I give thought to how and when I left that classroom at nine PM? You bet. I took great care not to make any move that might encourage the initially-unidentified culprit, who might construe almost anything as encouragement. For several weeks I made sure not to leave the building with any female students.

But was I afraid of physical danger, as the original poster was? Decidedly not; my experience was much, much less alarming than hers. When the (eventually identified) culprit chose to glower at me in the classroom, I felt the opposite of fear. Her displeasure was an admission of her powerlessness, and I was confident that she would not resort to any physical intimidation. Neither did I worry about my appearance, or become uncomfortable about my body; I did not believe that the incident had much to do with my body or my looks. Neither did I worry about my work clothing, since I had already availed myself of perfectly "safe" and "professional" male clothing which could not be second-guessed. It wasn't just that what I was wearing could not be construed as sexy by the student; I was also safe from any charge from administrators that I had "brought it on myself" with what I wore. Professional women, alas, don't get such easy and uncontroversial dress standards.

But the most important difference was that I knew the school authorities would back me. And that would have been true for me virtually anywhere. I trust that my particular chair and my particular dean would do the same for any of my female colleagues in the same situation, but that is not true of every chair or every dean. Again, there are horror stories which aren't mine to tell, but I can think of instances where a male student made wildly inappropriate overtures toward female faculty, where there was no dispute either of the inappropriateness of the student behavior or the identity of the student, and the student was allowed to remain in the professor's classroom. That is the difference between being a man and a woman in this profession. If a man asks to be protected in his workplace, he always gets protected. Some women do, and some women don't. That's an abuse of the faculty member who's forced to be in a classroom where she doesn't feel safe, and it's an abuse of every one of her students, whose education is compromised by keeping the harassing student in the classroom.

A teacher who's having students trespass her (or his) boundaries will almost certainly begin to second-guess those boundaries and feel tempted to make them much more rigid. There's an instinctive response to make oneself as distant and unapproachable as possible. That doesn't help anybody's learning. Nor does feeling wary and defensive help you run a classroom better. A teacher's professionalism may compensate for her or his discomfort in that situation, and the students may never see it overtly expressed, but it will still be a compensation and it will take that teacher's energy and attention away from other things.

Read that original post again. The professor in question was feeling so cautious about her boundaries that she gave up her habit of sitting on the desk. Now, sitting on the desk is not itself the key to teaching effectiveness, but it was clearly something she used to signal a relaxed and open atmosphere for discussion. It seems overwhelmingly likely that discussion in that classroom stopped feeling quite so relaxed and welcoming, because the teacher couldn't afford it to be. That's hard on the teacher and bad for the students. She also writes about scheduling student conferences very tightly in order to avoid being alone with the culprit, which means that everybody's individual conference got kept short and hurried. The faculty member was put in a situation where the goal of her safety and comfort was put in conflict with the goals of effective teaching, all for the dubious benefit of keeping the problem student in the classroom.

And before anyone takes up a Gender Wars 1.0 position, siding with the male student against the prudish female authority figure, remember this: when a professor who's feeling the instinct to pull back from students because she's been (or being) harassed by a male student is going to pull back furthest from other male students. Allowing one boy the inalienable male privilege of handing in porn for course credit has a cost. It gets paid by other male students who get a teacher who is less available, less generous, less likely to become a mentor. How could it not? (It also, of course, exacts a toll on the professor's well-being and her soul.)

When put in a less-intense parallel situation, even knowing that I would be supported by my superiors, I went through a few months when I was instinctively much more distant from female students and had to work, consciously and hard, to remain equally accessible to all my students. During the night course with the problem student, I was very careful to leave the building every night with at least one male student. That felt like a very reasonable step. But it did mean that the male student, often the same one, got an extra five or six minutes of conversation about the writers and books we were studying, a little extra attention from the professor. Is that gender inequality? You bet. And there was an enormous temptation to shut myself off from female students for the next few months, becoming less likely to stop for a brief chat if I passed them on campus, more reluctant to take on independent study projects, quicker to end conversations in my office. That would obviously be unjust, and that is not the teacher I have ever wanted to be. But absolutely no one would have called me on it. I could also have been "fair" by pulling back from all my students, but that is not teaching either. And it took a hard, conscious effort not to become that person. That's doing it the easy way, cushioned by institutional support and male privilege and a sense of physical safety. It's a lot harder for women. That penalizes women and their students as well.

Female faculty need to be allowed to solve classroom problems as they see fit, but they also need to know that they have all the tools that their solutions require, including backing from administrators. A faculty member who's feeling harassed by a student might decide that the student does not need to be removed from her classroom, but she does need the confidence of knowing that she could have the student removed if that were necessary. The real scandal isn't that students treat male and female faculty differently; that is just an ugly reflection of our wider society's values. But when the people overseeing a university and upholding its values allow female faculty to be treated in a way that male faculty would never be asked to tolerate, it's a scandal and a shame.

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